Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A group of stick figures collaborating in various ways, with a green stick figure in the middle (the designer) participating.
Design is messy. But that mess should be shaped by the oppressed communities it has failed to serve.

A synopsis of Costanza-Chock’s “Design Justice”: nothing for us without us

In the first week of June 2009, I sat in my first Design class. I was a new Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University, and excited about broadening my scholarly background from CS and Behavioral Sciences to include Design. I’d enrolled in a short 4-week summer version of Communication Design Fundamentals, which many of my senior peers had described as a design bootcamp for novices. I expected to learn a few typography skills, meet some design students and faculty, and get a sense for the culture of design as an academic discipline and professional practice.

But I got so much more, even in just the first 15 minutes on the first day of class. Our teacher, now emeritus faculty Dan Boyarski, showed a slide with a famous poem, presented line by line in the publisher’s original formatting. He then began, slide by slide, to point out a range of invisible choices the typographer had made: an unnecessary semi-colon, a confusing line break, a jarring juxtaposition of whitespace and semantics, a tight kerning that conflicted with the gentle pace of the poem’s scenery. Within just a few minutes of this rapid critique and refinement, it was immediately clear: this poem, but also everything in our designed world could have been and can be something else. I learned that it is up to designers to interrogate and make these choices, envision new possibilities, and select from them in a way that centers their intent. I also realized shortly after that all of the design I had ever done was a byproduct of the conventions I’d learned, rather than the design problem I was trying to solve. This forever transformed my thinking, my design, and my design practice.

Inspired, I quickly absorbed everything I could about design methods. User-centered design, human-centered design, the participatory design methods of Scandinavia, perspectives on emotion and design, Don Norman’s cognitive take on design, visions of universal design, and our faculty’s nascent but now seminal conceptions of research through design. While my research was distant from design methods, it design methods. I learned enough to use design methods and to eventually teach them, and have been ever since.

Throughout my design teaching in the past 12 years, however, a question would emerge in my discussions with students. When is it best to center the designer’s intent over insight from stakeholders? Students would contrast people like Apple’s Jony Ive—who appear to centralize design intent to a small, private, exclusionary team, yet produce often exquisite objects and experiences—with the egalitarian approaches of Microsoft, Mozilla, and Amazon—which appear to gather considerable input from the world, but often produce muddled, confusing, incoherent experiences. Students asked me if one way was better. I would always reply that one was not necessarily better, they were just different paradigms for centering power. One approach, which we might call “design dictatorship,” is strongly opinionated, and free to conceive of coherent singular visions on behalf of stakeholder needs. Another, which we might call “design democracy,” is more inclusive, and constrained by the messy, conflicting, diversity of needs and desires. Different yes, but better? No. That’s a matter of values, which wasn’t my place.

After reading Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, I’m no longer sure that it’s not my place. She starts from a conception of design justice that asks:

“…whether the affordances of a designed object or system disproportionately reduce opportunities for already oppressed groups of people while enhancing the life opportunities of dominant groups, independently of whether designers intend this outcome.” (p. 41)

Examples of such injustice abound. For example, she shares the relatively mundane example of soap dispensers:

“…a Black person might experience a micro aggression if their hands do not trigger a hand soap dispenser that has been (almost certainly unintentionally) calibrated to work only, or better, with lighter skin tones. This minor interruption of daily life is nevertheless an instantiation of racial bias in the specific affordances of a designed object: the dispenser affords hands-free soap delivery, but only if your hands have white skin. The user is, for a brief moment, reminded of their subordinate position within the matrix of domination.” (p. 45)

Design Justice uses the concept of the matrix of domination (from Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, who used it to describe the linked systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism), to argue that:

“An object’s affordances are never equally perceptible to all, and never equally available to all; a given affordance is always more perceptible, more available, or both, to some kinds of people. Design justice brings this insight to the fore and calls for designers’ ongoing attention to the ways these differences are shaped by the matrix of domination.” (p. 39)

Soap dispensers, of course, are just a small example of a racist design micro-aggression. More egregious examples abound: cis-normative TSA body scanners that lead to invasive pat downs of trans people like myself; Western social media websites that center individualism over community; ride-share services that center consumer and corporate voices over marginalized communities being exploited for their labor. These all emerge from design processes that are likely ignorant of the inherent bias that underlies designers’ intent. The book therefore frames design justice as fundamentally about power in design processes: who has it, what they do with it, and what effects their choices have on oppressed groups.

Costanza-Chock conceives of power in both the methods of a design process and its outcomes. For methods, she convincingly argues that positioning designers as “in charge” of design processes is inherently problematic:

“…designers tend to unconsciously default to imagining users whose experiences are similar to their own. This means that users are most often assumed to be members of the dominant and hence “unmarked” group: in the United States, this means (cis) male, white heterosexual “able-bodied,” literate, college educated, not a young child and not elderly, with broadband internet access, with a smartphone, and so on. Most technology product design ends up focused on this relatively small, but potentially highly profitable, subset of humanity. Unfortunately, this produces a spiral of exclusion, as design industries center the most socially and economically powerful users, while other users are systematically excluded on multiple levels.” (p. 77)

Costanza-Chock instead advocates for community-based methods that not only learn from communities, but partner closely with them, framing designers not as deciders but as facilitators who amplify the work of communities by contributing their design skills:

“Design justice is interested in telling stories that amplify, lift up, and make visible existing community-based design solutions, practices, and practitioners.” (p. 134)

This means avoiding methods that “parachute” in to social contexts for insight to take back to the studio. Instead, design justice methods are ones integrated into a community, in which designers do not decide, but facilitate, sharing their expertise to support the needs and solutions that best align with what communities need to thrive.

Costanza-Chock admits that the outcomes of a design justice approach might be slower, more intensive, more unpredictable, and perhaps even less “exquisite” than dominant design paradigms. But she also argues that the a slowed pace might be necessary for justice, and that the outcomes of justice-centered design methods can be exquisite in their own way, reflecting the rich complexity of community needs, values, and aesthetics:

“[Design justice] doesn’t mean lowest-common-denominator design. Quite the opposite: it means highly specific, intentional, custom design that takes multiple standpoints into account. It is not about eliminating the benefits of excellent design unless everyone can access them; instead, it is about more fairly allocating those benefits.” (p. 230)

My summary can’t possibly convey to the book’s epic invocation of oppressed design communities. She surfaces, highlights, and celebrates an incredible number of community-based efforts that reflect the spirit of design justice: +KAOS, #MoreThanCode, AORTA, CERO, CL/VU, DCTP, DiscoTechs, IPVTech, Loconomics, NuVu, RTCs, T4SJ, TecnoX, TXTMob, and more. The sheer number of these efforts, which are surely only a small sample of those globally, is a testament both to the opportunity of design justice to engage with communities, but also to the hegemonic role of industry in overshadowing community efforts.

In a way, Design Justice does what numerous other social justice movements have: take an established paradigm of thought, and reconsider its foundation from a justice lens. In the past two years, I’ve begun a similar journey in my research on and practice of CS education; Design Justice calls me to do the same for Design Education, both as a design educator Design Education researcher. Costanza-Chock addresses design education explicitly throughout the book, offering pedagogical opportunities and case studies, but doesn’t promise an easy path. Most design educators know that describing design to students as a sequential process of research, ideation, prototyping, and evaluation, is a vast oversimplification. But it simplifies teaching in so many ways. Design Justice obliterates the notion of designer-led process altogether, forcing educators like myself to ask: what does it mean to engage community authentically and ethically in design learning contexts?

Clearly I’m behind on this. Countless of my HCI and Design colleagues have been doing this for years. And clearly Costanza-Chock has been innovating in these teaching methods for years at MIT. But if my conception of design could be reshaped in 15 minutes at Carnegie Mellon in a way that shaped my 15 years design teaching, Design Justice reshaped it again, and will reshape my design teaching for the foreseeable future. I’d encourage you to read the book and be similarly inspired.

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